The Good & Bad of the Trade Deadline [2015 Season Review]

Price. (Presswire)
Price. (Presswire)

On July 24th, one week before the trade deadline, the Yankees were 53-42 and 5.5 games up in the AL East. They had scored the second most runs in baseball (435) but also allowed the 12th most (409) at the time. They were pretty healthy too. Andrew Miller and Jacoby Ellsbury had both returned from their injuries, and Ivan Nova had returned from Tommy John surgery.

Things were going pretty darn well for the Yankees in late-July. There were also some clear needs, particularly at second base and in the rotation. Getting another starter was going to take some creativity because the Yankees had five starters (six if you count Adam Warren), though they sorely lacked an innings eater and, frankly, a dominator. Masahiro Tanaka had his moments but there was a little too much mediocrity mixed in to call him a true ace.

Given those needs, the nice but not entirely comfortable lead in the division, and the fact they hadn’t been to the postseason in either of the last two years, I thought the Yankees would be aggressive at the trade deadline. Instead, they walked away with Dustin Ackley and nothing else. That doesn’t mean they didn’t try to get help, it just means they didn’t pull the trigger on anything. In the end, the results were both good and bad.

The Good: Keep the Kids

Scroll back through our various Trade Deadline Open Threads and you’ll see the Yankees were connected to a whole bunch of players before the deadline, some more than others. They were in on guys like Mike Leake, Jeff Samardzija, Yovani Gallardo, Carter Capps, Tyler Clippard, and Mat Latos, among others. I don’t even remember half of that.

When it was all said and one, we only heard about three serious offers. Well, four if you count the completed Ackley trade. Here are the three deals that didn’t get done:

The Maybin-for-Sanchez offer makes no sense. The Yankees already had a great right-handed hitting outfielder in Chris Young and literally no roster space for Maybin. I guess they could have acquired Maybin instead of Ackley, but why? That was the Braves trying to get a talented young catcher. Didn’t make sense for New York.

Zobrist, on the other hand, would have fit the Yankees perfectly because he fits every team perfectly. He would have stepped in at second base, an area of great need for New York, and provided them with another switch-hitting bat for the lineup. The Kimbrel stuff came after the Yankees decided the price of rotation help was too high, so they were going to beef up the bullpen instead. Gyorko would have platooned with Stephen Drew at second.

Look at the names involved in those trades. Refsnyder, Sanchez, Mateo. Warren’s not really a kid but he was under control for a few more years and was a really valuable piece of the pitching staff in 2015. Luis Severino and Greg Bird were also mentioned in rumors at the trade deadline. So was Aaron Judge. These guys are all among the top young players in the organization and all except Mateo were knocking on the door of MLB at the trade deadline.

The Yankees kept these players and now most of them are in position to help next season. Heck, Severino and Bird helped almost immediately after the trade deadline. Refsnyder helped later in the year. Judge isn’t far off either. There is a clear path for these players to take on significant roles with the Yankees in the extremely near future. Severino has a rotation spot locked up. Refsnyder was going to at least compete for the second base job until the Starlin Castro trade. Bird and Judge are stuck behind Mark Teixeira and Carlos Beltran, though those two will be free agents next winter.

It would have been very easy — and I would have considered it totally justifiable — to trade any of those young players for a rental player at the deadline. Instead, the Yankees stuck to their guns, continued what qualifies as a Yankees youth movement, and kept their top youngsters. Now those players are in line to help and the Yankees will potentially reap the rewards going forward. They held on to their MLB ready guys. We’re not going to wait another two years to see them in pinstripes.

The Bad: Second Half Collapse

The Yankees were 5.5 games up a week before the deadline, seven games up two days before the deadline, and yet they finished six games back in the division. They lost 13 games in the standings to the Blue Jays in the final two months of the season. The Yankees finished one game better than the Astros for the top wildcard spot and two games better than the Angels for a wildcard spot in general.

Zobrist. (Presswire)
Zobrist. (Presswire)

That’s quite a collapse. The Yankees really could have used some help in the second half! Zobrist and even Gyorko would have (potentially) helped the offense, and if nothing else, Kimbrel would have meant fewer innings for the shuttle guys down the stretch in September. There’s also David Price. The Yankees made a run at Price before the deadline but fell short, reportedly because the Tigers really wanted Daniel Norris.

I have a hard time believing it would have been impossible to bridge the gap between Severino and Norris, but it doesn’t really matter now. Price is a balance of power guy. He changes the entire complexion of a division race and we saw that down the stretch. Price dominated (2.30 ERA and 2.22 FIP) for the Blue Jays and they won nine of his eleven starts. He helped them win other games by saving the bullpen too (averaged 6.2 innings per start).

Who knows what would have happened had the Yankees been more willing to trade young players at the deadline. The offense crashed so hard those last few weeks that adding Zobrist or Gyorko or whoever else might not have mattered. The Blue Jays may have beat up on Price and mashed their way to first place anyway had New York landed the left-hander.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say the second half fade could have been slowed somewhat with some deadline help. Enough to win the division? Probably enough. Enough to win the wildcard game? Well that’s a much different story. Price starting that game instead of Tanaka and/or Zobrist/Gyorko instead of Refsnyder at second could have made all the difference in the world.

* * *

Believe me, I’m happy the Yankees kept Severino and Bird and those others guys. I look forward to watching them play next season and beyond. I also appreciate a team that goes for it. Too many clubs are content to sit back and wait for the future. At the time, I wanted the Yankees to go for it at the deadline, especially Price and Zobrist. Not doing so looks smart in hindsight, but only in hindsight in my opinion.

Thoughts following the Starlin Castro trade

(Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)
(Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)

Last night the Yankees made their second trade of the offseason, sending Adam Warren and a Brendan Ryan to be named later to the Cubs for Starlin Castro. Brian Cashman confirmed he tried to get Castro at the trade deadline, then again earlier this offseason before the two teams circled back at the Winter Meetings this week. Anyway, I have thoughts. Here they are in no logical order.

1. This trade seems to go against pretty much everything the Yankees have done the last few years in that Castro is not considered a great makeup guy. Fair or not, he’s been cast as a bit of a headache throughout his career, and he’s also had some off-field issues, namely this and this. I doubt the “good clubhouse guy” thing has gone out the window, so chances are the Yankees feel comfortable with Castro as a person. Special assistant Jim Hendry was the Cubs GM when Chicago signed, developed, and called Castro up to MLB. Pitching coach Larry Rothschild was also with the Cubs for Starlin’s rookie year, so presumably he and Hendry have firsthand knowledge of Castro the person. I’m sure both had some level of input — Hendry moreso than Rothschild — into the trade and signed off on his makeup. It’s just a little weird to see the Yankees pick up a guy widely believed to have makeup issues after doing the opposite for so long. (I don’t think playing in New York will be an issue. Chicago is intense and Cubs media has been trashing Castro for years. He’s used to it.)

2. Now, that said, this an an opportunity for that veteran clubhouse to go to work and help Castro. I’m sure that crossed the team’s mind before the trade. Specifically I’m talking about Alex Rodriguez and Carlos Beltran. Those two have long had reputations for helping young players, A-Rod in particular. Robinson Cano was a little like Castro earlier in his career — ultra-talented but a bit lazy (especially in the minors) and someone who coasted on talent — but he credited Alex for whipping him into shape and helping him take his career to the next level. A-Rod’s made some big mistakes in his career, but he’s always been very prepared and a very hard worker. He instilled that mindset in Cano and hopefully he (and Beltran) can do it again with Castro. Starlin may really be able to thrive under two veteran mentors like A-Rod and Beltran.

3. Castro’s risk is very obvious. He’s been one of the worst players in baseball two of the last three years and is a .265/.305/.383 (89 wRC+) hitter in his last 1,852 plate appearances. That’s bad. I don’t care how young you are or how much upside you have. That’s bad. Can’t argue otherwise. And yet, Castro hit .292/.339/.438 (117 wRC+) as recently as 2014. He’s been league average or better at the plate in four of his six big league seasons. This strikes me as a very boom or bust move. Castro could really take off as he enters his prime — maybe he goes on a Cano-like tear these next few years, that’d be cool — or he could continue to flounder and be a below-average hitter. The Yankees are taking a shot on talent here and there’s a chance this turns into a $40M dud. Then again, if Castro was putting up big numbers, it would have taken a lot more than Warren (and Ryan) to get him.

4. I do think the trade is fair-ish from a pure value-for-value perspective. Warren (and Ryan) was at the very upper bound of what I would have been comfortable paying for Castro, but it’s not crazy. Cubs fans are probably more upset they didn’t get more for Castro — a young everyday middle infielder signed affordably for another four years — than Yankees fans should be they didn’t get more for Warren. The Yankees got three cheap years out of David Phelps then traded him away from Nathan Eovaldi. They then got three cheap years out of Warren then flipped him for Castro. Who’s next in line, Bryan Mitchell?

5. The Yankees are definitely going to miss Warren because he’s both good and versatile. He can start or relieve, and he’s durable. Warren has never had an arm injury in his career and he bounces back well on back-to-back days, stuff like that. Warren was basically penciled in as that No. 4 reliever behind Andrew Miller, Dellin Betances, and Justin Wilson. Who’s the team’s second best righty reliever behind Betances right now? Mitchell? Branden Pinder or Nick Rumbelow? Eek. Warren was also the club’s No. 6 (or No. 7) starter. He was really important this past season and his “quality innings in whatever role” profile will not be easily replaced. You’ve got to give to get, but boy, those important innings Warren soaked up are going to fall on someone less qualified now. Bringing in another depth arm should be on the to-do list now. (Yes, there’s still plenty of offseason left.)

(Andy Lyons/Getty)
(Andy Lyons/Getty)

6. I do like that Castro adds balance to the lineup and has a different offensive profile than most other Yankees regulars. For starters, he’s a right-handed hitter who has a history of hitting left-handers (career 106 wRC+), and we saw how southpaws chewed the Yankees up down the stretch last year. A-Rod was their only potent everyday right-handed hitter, and once he faded in the second half, the Yankees had little chance against lefties. Castro will help fix that problem. He’s also a very aggressive (career 3.67 pitches per plate appearance) contact hitter (career 15.6% strikeout rate), and I don’t think having a guy like that in the lineup is a bad thing. The Yankees can get caught being a little too passive at times. Having someone who comes out willing to jump on that belt high first pitch fastball adds a different dynamic to the offense. Now, putting nine guys like that in the lineup is a problem. But one? No big deal. Especially when he’s hitting in the bottom third of the lineup like Castro probably will, at least at first.

7. One aspect of Castro’s game that is pretty cool: he’s very durable. He’s played in 766 of 810 possible games since 2011 (94.6%) and he’s never been on the DL. His only notable injury is a high ankle sprain suffered late last year while sliding into home plate. The Cubs shut him down for the final 23 games of the season because they were out of the race and there was no reason to push it. This is baseball, fluke injuries can happen at any time, but the ability to stay on the field and play 150+ games year after year is a valuable. That was a big part of what made Cano great. The guy played every game. Health is a skill, and six years into his big league career, it appears Castro has it.

8. The bench will have a different look now. Castro is going to be the starting second baseman but with Ryan going to the Cubs in the trade, Starlin also figures to be the backup shortstop. So now the bench is: backup catcher (Austin Romine or Gary Sanchez), outfielder (Aaron Hicks), utility man (Dustin Ackley), and a fourth guy. That fourth guy can be anything! It could be another outfielder (Slade Heathcott?), another infielder (Rob Refsnyder?), a backup first baseman (Greg Bird?), or heck, even a third catcher. That said, the Yankees need to come up with a backup third baseman for Chase Headley, because Ryan was it and now he’s done. Ackley can’t do it because his arm has been shot since having Tommy John surgery in college. He’d need a relay man to make the throw across the diamond. Castro has never played third at the big league level and has seven games of hot corner experience in his career, all in rookie ball a very long time ago. Gregorius has played ten innings at third in his career, all with the 2014 Diamondbacks. I guess he’s the backup third baseman by default right now. Juan Uribe would be a pretty cool bench target. He can still pick it at third and do damage against lefties. Mark Reynolds stands out as another potential depth pickup. The backup third base situation is: developing.

9. Alright, so what happens with Refsnyder now? Cashman said yesterday the plan was to start him at Triple-A in the wake of the Castro trade, but what’s he supposed to say? They could trade him now — the A’s had interest at the deadline, remember — but there’s no need to come out and say that’s the plan. It’s self-defeating. The Yankees didn’t give Refsnyder much of an opportunity this season despite Stephen Drew‘s prolonged slumps, and the Castro trade is only more confirmation they aren’t comfortable with Refsnyder as an everyday player. “I think that the one spot that’s probably open for competition more than anything is second base,” said Joe Girardi during his meeting with reporters prior to the trade yesterday. Holding on to middle infield depth is never a bad thing, but it would not surprise me at all if Refsnyder was traded now, perhaps for a spare arm or another position player who fits the roster better. We’ll see. The Castro pickup certainly did Refsnyder’s Yankees career no favors.

Yankees swap Adam Warren and Brendan Ryan for Starlin Castro

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

For the second time this offseason and the fifth time in the last 13 months, the Yankees have brought in a change-of-scenery player to add youth to the roster. New York acquired Starlin Castro from the Cubs on Tuesday night, sending Adam Warren and a player to be named later to Chicago. Both teams have announced the trade, so it’s official. Officially official.

Castro, 25, joins Didi Gregorius, Nathan Eovaldi, Dustin Ackley, and Aaron Hicks as young players the Yankees have acquired in trades since last November. All five are talented — they’ve all appeared on at least one Baseball America top 100 prospects list, for what it’s worth — and all five fell out of favor with their former teams. The Yankees swooped in and picked them up as part of their on-the-fly rebuild.

This past season Castro hit .265/.296/.375 (80 wRC+) with eleven home runs in 578 plate appearances. He started the season as Chicago’s shortstop and stayed there for 109 games before being moved to second base. Castro hit .353/.373/.588 (161 wRC+) with six home runs in 42 games after changing positions. Obviously the Yankees are hoping to get that guy going forward.

“He looked like a different player after the position change,” said Brian Cashman to reporters Tuesday evening, after the trade was announced. “I like that he’s athletic. I like his age. (I like that he) can play multiple positions and adds balance to lineup. He’s a contact-oriented player. He’s a free swinger, but a contact (freak) … (Castro) checks a lot of boxes — youth, flexibility.”

The various defensive stats consistently rated Castro as a below-average defender at short. He only played 258 innings at second base, so looking at numbers would be useless at this point. I reckon his second base defense can’t be any worse than what the Yankees were looking at from the Ackley/Rob Refsnyder platoon. Castro is signed through 2019 for $41.4M with a 2020 club option worth $16M. That’s pretty affordable by today’s standards.

Castro’s a former tippy top prospect with big upside, so the appeal is obvious. There’s also major downside too: he’s been one of the worst players in baseball two of the last three years by WAR. His good years have been good but not great (117 wRC+ and 2.8 fWAR in 2014) and his down years have been abysmal (74 wRC+ and 0.1 fWAR in 2013). Special assistant Jim Hendry was the Cubs GM when they signed, developed, and summoned Castro to MLB, so he surely had input into this move.

In Warren, the Yankees are giving up a valuable and a versatile arm capable of doing pretty much anything. Start, long relief, middle relief, setup … Warren’s done it all for the Yankees the last few seasons. The 28-year-old had a 3.29 ERA (3.59 FIP) in 131.1 innings spread across 17 starts and 26 relief appearances in 2015. He was arbitration-eligible for the first time this offseason and is projected to earn $1.5M in 2015. Warren is three years from free agency.

Although the Yankees were planning to bring Warren to Spring Training as a starting pitcher, he was likely no higher than sixth on their rotation depth chart behind Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, Michael Pineda, Luis Severino, and Eovaldi in whatever order. Still, Warren’s shown he can succeed in pretty much any role, so he was going to have a important place on the roster in 2016. He’ll be missed.

At this time of the year, a player to be named is usually a non-40-man roster player who is eligible for the Rule 5 Draft. That’s not the case here though. Joel Sherman says Brendan Ryan will be the player to be named. They’re holding off because the Cubs don’t want to fill another 40-man spot before Thursday’s Rule 5 Draft. Once the draft passes, Ryan will go to Chicago. The Yankees will have two open 40-man spots when it’s all said and done.

Ryan, 33, hit a weak .229/.275/.333 (64 wRC+) in 47 games and 103 plate appearances around a variety of injuries in 2015. He makes his money in the field with his glove, not at the plate. Castro will be the starting second baseman but also figures to double as Gregorius’ backup at short. That would make Ackley and/or Refsnyder the backup plan at second base. We’ll see how that shakes out.

An Ackley/Refsnyder platoon was somewhat intriguing, but I also think it was one of those things that sounds okay in December and leaves you pulling your hair out in May. There’s a lot of risk here. Warren’s going to be tougher to replace than I think many realize, and Castro has been more down than up in recent years. There’s also some crazy high upside. Castro’s a high-level talent and is about to enter what should be his prime years.

2015 Winter Meetings Open Thread: Tuesday

(Mike Ehrmann/Getty)
Fernandez. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty)

As far as the Yankees are concerned, yesterday was the slowest Winter Meetings day I can remember. Very few rumors came out of Nashville and those that did mostly involved stuff we’ve already heard, like Brett Gardner and Andrew Miller being available. It was a boring day, to say the least.

“Clearly, I’m not comfortable with recommending anything that’s come my way, despite a lot of dialogue, and my opponents are not comfortable with the things I’m suggesting at this time,” said Brian Cashman to Bryan Hoch. With a reportedly tight payroll, the Yankees continue to focus on trades, not free agents.

Here are Monday’s rumors if you missed any of the little bit that happened. Once again, we’ll keep track of the day’s Yankees-related rumors right here in this open thread, so make sure you check back often. All time stamps are ET.

  • 10:30am: The Yankees are among the teams “digging” on Jose Fernandez, meaning they’re asking around about his health, makeup, and work ethic. The Marlins understandably want five or six young players for their ace. Why ask for anything less? For what it’s worth, president of baseball operations Michael Hill said flatly “He’s not available.” [Jayson Stark, Jon Heyman, Clark Spencer]
  • 10:30am: The Yankees have interest in Marlins outfielder Marcell Ozuna. Miami has liked Bryan Mitchell as a starter and Adam Warren as a reliever in the past, which seems backwards, but whatever. It’s the Marlins. [George King]
  • 10:38am: The Yankees have reached out to free agent catcher Tyler Flowers, who was non-tendered by the White Sox last week. He’s deciding between the Yankees, Rays, and Braves. I wrote about Flowers in last week’s mailbag. He seems like a Yankees type because he rated as an elite pitch-framer in 2015. Flowers is from Georgia and the Braves offer way more playing time potential, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he lands in Atlanta. [Bryan Hoch]
  • 12:03pm: Five teams, including the Reds, Orioles, and Angels, have their eye on Jake Cave for Thursday’s Rule 5 Draft. Cave seems like a goner. Whether he sticks on the 25-man roster all year is another matter. [Brendan Kuty]
  • 1:00pm: The Yankees are willing to include Luis Severino in a package for Jose Fernandez. The belief is the Yankees do not have enough to land Fernandez though, even if they include Greg Bird in the deal. [Joe Frisaro]
  • 1:32pm: The Yankees say Luis Severino is not going anywhere. He wasn’t in their offer for Jose Fernandez and there are no ongoing talks. Sounds like the Marlins are trying to get the Yankees to blink and include Severino in the package, more than anything. [Joel Sherman]
  • 5:50pm: The Yankees and Cubs have talked about a trade that would bring Starlin Castro to New York. No word on any other pieces that would be involved. Castro’s young and I guess that means he offers upside, but he’s also been among the worst players in baseball two of the last three years. [Ken Rosenthal]
  • 6:08pm: Brett Gardner is not part of the current Starlin Castro talks with the Cubs. The Cubbies don’t want Jacoby Ellsbury either. Chicago is said to be working on all sorts of stuff — they’re after Ben Zobrist, discussing Javier Baez with the Braves and Rays, etc. — so this is part of some master plan for them. [Joel Sherman]
  • 6:14pm: Talks with the Cubs about Starlin Castro are in the early stages. The Yankees tend to keep things very close to the vest, annoyingly so at times (it’s boring!), so chances are this is coming from the Cubs’ side. [Jon Heyman]
  • 6:37pm: The Cubs have “been curious” about Adam Warren, whatever that means. Warren’s not a sexy name but he’s become incredibly valuable to the Yankees. I’m not sure Castro is enough of an upgrade at second base to move him. [Joel Sherman]
  • 7:51pm: The Yankees and Cubs are moving closer to a Starlin Castro trade. The Cubs just agreed to sign Ben Zobrist so it’s only a matter of time until Castro goes. [Buster Olney]

(Reminder: Your trade proposal sucks.)

Tuesday Night Open Thread

Another slow day for the Yankees at the Winter Meetings. There is some ex-Yankee news from the other side of the world though: Hiroki Kuroda has decided to pitch in 2016, according to report passed along by Patrick Newman. He’s going to remain with the Hiroshima Carp. Reports indicated Kuroda was planning to retire this offseason after one final season in Japan, but I guess he changed his mind. He had a 2.55 ERA in 169.2 innings for the Carp this year. Kuroda’s awesome. Love ’em.

Anyway, here is tonight’s open thread. The Islanders, Devils, and Nets are all playing, plus there’s some college hoops on as well. Talk about those games, Kuroda’s decision to pitch again, or anything else here. Have at it.

The Sorta New Look Coaching Staff [2015 Season Review]

(Presswire)
Pena. (Presswire)

Yesterday afternoon we reviewed Joe Girardi’s season while acknowledging how difficult it can be to evaluate a manager. We only see the on-field stuff, which is a very small part of the manager’s job. Evaluating coaches is even more difficult. Outside of the pitching coach making a mound visit or the third base coach waving someone in, all of their work happens behind the scenes.

The Yankees reshuffled their coaching staff last offseason. Hitting coach Kevin Long and first base coach Mick Kelleher were both let go, bench coach Tony Pena shifted to first base coach, third base coach Rob Thomson shifted to bench coach, and new hires Jeff Pentland (hitting coach), Alan Cockrell (assistant hitting coach), and Joe Espada (third base coach) were brought in. Well, Espada was working in the pro scouting department. He just shifted back on to the field in a coaching capacity. How did the new-look coaching staff perform in 2015? Let’s try to figure that out.

Bench Coach: Rob Thomson

Thomson left a lot to be desired as the third base coach, especially in 2014, when the Yankees had the fourth most runners thrown out at the plate in baseball (21). The shift to bench coach means we have basically no way to evaluate him. The Yankees outperformed their run differential by a combined 13 wins from 2013-14. This past season they underperformed by one win. Want to blame that on Thomson taking over as Girardi’s second in command? Go ahead. Just understand we have no idea if that is actually the case. Girardi managed like Girardi, so I’m inclined to say Thomson didn’t put any crazy ideas in his head. Thomson’s been in the organization a long time and is highly respected around the game. I’ll defer to those folks. Thomson’s a-okay with me.

Hitting Coaches: Jeff Pentland & Alan Cockrell

Let’s call a spade a spade: Long was scapegoated for the Yankees failing to make the postseason from 2013-14. The offense was terrible those years, mostly because the roster left a lot to be desired, so the hitting coach took the fall. Stuff like this has been happening since hitting coaches became a thing. When the GM says he’s one the best hitting coaches in the game on his way out the door, you know he was scapegoated.

Anyway, the Yankees fired Long soon after the season in October, and it wasn’t until January that they hired Pentland and Cockrell, adopting the two hitting coach system that is taking over MLB. Both men brought big league hitting coach experience to the table. The result? The Yankees finished second in baseball with 764 runs scored in 2015, an improvement of 131 runs from 2014. Almost a run a game.

Of course, crediting Pentland and Cockrell for all the improvement would be like assigning all the blame to the Long. In my opinion, the biggest reason the offense improved was health. Carlos Beltran was relatively healthy all year. Mark Teixeira was healthy until the fluke foul pitch off his shin. Alex Rodriguez returned. Brian McCann was more comfortable in year two. Good players have a way of making a hitting coach look smart.

Here’s a quick side-by-side look at the 2014 and 2015 offenses, specifically their batted ball and plate discipline numbers:

2014 Yankees vs 2015 Yankees

The overarching numbers show the team’s plate discipline didn’t change much if at all, so there wasn’t any kind of significant change in approach. The 2015 Yankees did, however, hit more fly balls (slightly) and pull the ball more often. The big knock on Long was the offense turning into a bunch of pull hitters. Well, the Yankees pulled the ball even more under Pentland and they scored 131 additional runs.

One thing I think we can credit to Cockrell in particular is Didi Gregorius‘ midseason improvement. Gregorius told Brendan Kuty he used to have a long loop in his swing, but Cockrell worked with him to cut it down. “It can be mechanical. It can be thought. It can be fatigue,” said Cockrell. “There’s a lot of contributing factors. But I think once you’ve ID’ed that it is a little bit long, let’s work to shorten it. Let’s work to stay above the ball a little bit more. He’s (done) that.”

Hitting coaches are obviously important, though I also subscribe to the theory that they don’t have nearly as much on-field impact as it may seem. The offense was demonstrably better this past season than it had been from 2013-14, either because they had better players or better coaches (or both). Inevitably the coaches will get credit for that, especially after a change was made in the offseason.

However, the Yankees indicated they don’t believe Pentland was the reason for the offensive resurgence because he was let go after the season. After a relatively brief search, Cockrell was elevated to main hitting coach and Triple-A Scranton hitting coach Marcus Thames takes over as Cockrell’s assistant. Another year, another new hitting coach to blame for every slump.

Pitching Coach: Larry Rothschild

Rothschild has been New York’s pitching coach since 2011 and it’s become clear they have a lot of faith in him. For starters, he has a multi-year contract while most other coaches work on year-to-year deals. Secondly, the Yankees have acquired several young pitchers in need of refinement in recent years with the idea of turning them over to Rothschild for fine-tuning.

Rothschild. (Presswire)
Rothschild. (Presswire)

This past season’s project: Nathan Eovaldi. The Yankees acquired Eovaldi’s big but hittable fastball from the Marlins, then let Rothschild go to work. After a few weeks (months), Rothschild helped Eovaldi develop a legitimate out-pitch splitter that was the key to his midsummer run of dominance. Once he gained feel and really showed confidence in the split, Eovaldi was a much different pitcher. That’s something tangible we can credit to Rothschild.

The Yankees as a team had a 4.05 ERA and 3.97 FIP in 2015, ranking 16th and 13th in baseball, respectively. The rotation in particular had a 4.25 ERA (18th) and a 4.04 FIP (14th), yet I feel like it’s hard to blame Rothschild for the rotation being middle of the pack. The team gave way too many innings to CC Sabathia because of his contract and way too many innings to Ivan Nova following Tommy John surgery.

The only pitcher on the staff who I think really underperformed expectations was Michael Pineda, and I’m not sure he’s ever going to have an ERA (4.37 in 2015) that matches his FIP (3.34 FIP) because he’s around the plate so much — Pineda might throw too many strikes — and Yankee Stadium is not pitcher friendly. Rothschild’s done some really good things as pitching coach, including Eovaldi in 2015. I truly believe he’s one of the best pitching coaches in the game.

First Base Coach: Tony Pena

During games, the first base coach’s primary job involves timing the opposing battery to determine stolen base possibilities. He scouts the pitcher’s pickoff move and literally has a stopwatch to time the pitcher’s delivery and the catcher’s pop time. I’m not joking. The Yankees stole only 63 bases in 2015, their lowest total in a non-strike season since stealing 39 bases (!) in 1993. They averaged 118 steals from 2003-14.

Of course, the Yankees didn’t have the personnel to steal more bases. Jacoby Ellsbury hurt his knee in May and pretty much stopped running after that. Brett Gardner‘s days of 40+ steals are over. Those two stole 21 and 20 bases, respectively. Know who was third on the Yankees in steals? Rico Noel with five. The Yankees were never going to be a big stolen base team this summer, though their 72% success rate was tenth best in the game. They had nine runners picked off, seventh fewest in MLB.

Pena’s value to the Yankees isn’t necessarily his work as a first base coach, it’s his work with the catchers. He’s been handed young guys like Francisco Cervelli and John Ryan Murphy over the years, and tasked with improving their defense. Cervelli’s defense improved tremendously over the years. Murphy’s was very good this past season. As a first base coach, who in the world knows how Pena performed. His best and most important work is with the catchers, and the Yankees continue to have strong glove guys behind the plate.

Third Base Coach: Joe Espada

Finally, a coach we can really evaluate. The Yankees had only 14 runners thrown out at the plate this summer, fifth fewest in the baseball, but that’s because Espada seems to employ an ultra-conservative approach. He waved a runner home from second on a single just 59.3% of the time, the lowest in baseball. The MLB average is 69.8%. Espada waved a runner home from first on a double just 51.1% of the time, second lowest in baseball and well below the 65.4% league average.

Of course, the Yankees are not a fast team, so the conservative approach isn’t all on Espada. Sometimes he just has to hold up slow runners because they had no chance to score. There were definitely times when Espada seemed to either misread plays or not know the outfielder’s arm though, leading to curious holds or bad sends. The most obvious example came on July 27th, when Teixeira was thrown out at home trying to score from second because Espada told him he could go “easy.”

After the game, the normal reserved Teixeira was upset because he could have gotten hurt. “There was no miscommunication. Joe just told me, ‘Easy, easy,’ which means there’s going to be no play at the plate. It’s just a mistake … That can’t happen. I’m sure it won’t ever happen again,” he said. Teixeira, Espada, and Girardi later met to talk it all out.

Espada’s conservative approach is part necessity (the Yankees lack speed in general), part sensible (no reason to risk it all the time given how the Yankees were scoring runs in the first half), and part his poor reads. Third base coach is a thankless job. They never get credit for a good job and are only noticed for mistakes. Espada’s conservative, and I also think there is room for improvement going forward.

Bullpen Coach: Gary Tuck

The bullpen coach typically acts as a second pitching coach, but Tuck’s specialty is catching. He’s regarded as a catching guru and McCann credited him for improving his throwing. McCann threw out only 23.1% of base-runners in his last three years with the Braves, but, under Tuck, that number has jumped to 36.5% with the Yankees the last two seasons. It was 35.9% in 2015.

Outside of that, we really don’t have any way to evaluate Tuck. The Yankees did deem him expendable, however. He was let go following the season, reportedly due to a disagreement with the front office over the use of statistics. A few weeks later former bullpen coach Mike Harkey returned to the team as Tuck’s replacement. McCann’s improved throwing, which he sustained in 2015, is enough for me to say Tuck did some mighty fine work in pinstripes. That level of improvement is significant.

Scouting the Free Agent Market: Tony Sipp

(Sarah Crabill/Getty)
(Sarah Crabill/Getty)

Over the last few offseasons, the Yankees have only spent whatever comes off the books following the season. They put the money back into the team and that’s basically it, no more. The Yankees only shed about $20M in player salaries after the 2015 season, and a little less than half that will go to covering arbitration raises. It’s no surprise they’re focusing on trades now.

Spending some (any) of those limited dollars on a relief pitcher may not seem like a smart idea, but with substantial rotation help unlikely to be on the way, improving the relief crew make sense. Besides, there’s a chance the Yankees could land themselves a bargain in left-hander Tony Sipp, who remains unsigned even though relievers are now coming off the board every few hours. Is he a fit? Let’s look.

Recent Performance

Sipp is a journeyman. He started his career with the Indians, was traded to the Diamondbacks in the three-team deal that also sent Didi Gregorius to the desert, signed with the Padres as a free agent, then landed with the Astros as a free agent after being released by San Diego. The 32-year-old has thrown 363 innings in parts of seven MLB seasons (3.50 ERA and 4.21 FIP).

After arriving in Houston in 2014, Sipp’s performance improved considerably. Here are his last two seasons with the Astros and his two seasons prior to joining Houston.

IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/9 RHB wOBA LHB wOBA
2012 55.0 4.42 4.68 21.9% 9.9% 32.9% 1.47 .353 .288
2013 37.2 4.78 4.88 24.0% 12.6% 26.0% 1.43 .306 .378
2014 50.2 3.38 2.93 31.8% 8.6% 31.3% 0.89 .235 .227
2015 54.1 1.99 2.93 28.7% 6.9% 38.8% 0.83 .265 .265

Gosh, that’s like two different pitchers. Once he arrived in Houston, Sipp’s strikeout rate skyrocketed and he figured out how to retire right-handed batters, so he was no longer a left-on-left matchup guy. He was a true one-inning pitcher the last two seasons who just so happened to be left-handed.

Sipp’s walk rate is a little high — I’m not sure I’d count on him sustaining a 6.9% walk rate going forward, not based on his career to date — and he doesn’t get grounders, though that’s not necessarily a big deal because he’s been an extreme infield fly ball guy. His career rate is 13.5% infield pop-ups. The MLB average hovers around 9.0% each year. Strikeouts and pop-ups are a really great recipe for success.

Obviously there are reasons to be skeptical. Relievers work in small samples and weird stuff happens. When a career journeyman like Sipp suddenly puts it together, it’s easy to think it’s a fluke. There is a tangible reason for the improved performance against right-handers though, which led to the overall success. Let’s look at that now.

The Stuff

For the vast majority of his career, Sipp was a low-90s fastball/low-80s slider guy. Pretty generic. There are about a zillion lefties in pro ball with similar stuff. But, after picking him up off the scrap heap, the Astros got Sipp to use his splitter more often. Check it out:

Tony Sipp pitch selection

We saw Nathan Eovaldi go through the process of learning a splitter this summer. It’s not as simple as throwing the pitch more often. You have to get comfortable with it and throw it with conviction. That can take time.

The Astros got Sipp to use his splitter more often last year, and by this summer he was throwing it almost as often as his slider. It’s gone from show-me third pitch to legit weapon. That explains the improved performance against righties. Sipp now has a weapon for batters of the opposite hand. There’s an honest to goodness explanation for the improvement.

Middle reliever highlight videos are not exactly a hot internet commodity, but here’s a short look at Sipp’s split-finger fastball in action:

Chris Colabello, the last batter in the video, took that fastball down the middle because he was expecting a two-strike splitter out of the zone, the pitch Sipp used to strike out the first two batters. The splitter changes everything. The split itself gets swings and misses and it helps his fastball play up.

Sipp improved the last two years because he changed as a pitcher. Whether the improved performance is sustainable long-term remains to be seen, but, for now, all we need to understand the success is not a fluke. He added a new pitch and it changed his profile.

Injury History

Sipp had Tommy John surgery back in July 2007 but has been healthy since. No DL stints, no day-to-day injuries, nothing. The elbow reconstruction is the only significant injury of his career. (He did miss three weeks with an oblique strain in 2006, which … whatever.) By 32-year-old journeyman reliever standards, Sipp’s medical history is about as clean as you’re going to find.

Contract Estimates

Well, if there’s one thing we’ve learned this offseason, it’s that teams have a lot of money to spend. Contracts have been larger than projected in general, and that includes free agent relievers. For information purposes, here are Sipp’s various contract estimates (he didn’t receive a qualifying offer, so there’s no draft pick attached):

For what it’s worth, Jerry Crasnick reported yesterday that Sipp is looking for three years and $5M to $6M annually. That’s basically Zach Duke (three years, $15M) and Boone Logan (three years, $16.5M) money, and hey, maybe those are cautionary tales. Duke and Logan have been pretty terrible since signing their big free agent deals, and similar to Sipp, Duke had a tangible explanation for his sudden success because he reinvented himself as a side-armer.

Wrapping Up

The free agent bullpen market was pretty weak coming into the offseason and most of the top guys have already come off the board. Darren O’Day received four years and $32M. Joakim Soria got three years and $25M. Mark Lowe got two years and $13M. Heck, Ryan Madson got three years and $22M despite not pitching at all from 2012-14 due to an ugly medical history.

When I saw Sipp wanted only three years at $5M or $6M per year, it stood out to me as a bargain in this market. I thought Sipp was undervalued a bit coming into the offseason, but man, seeing those reliever contracts makes his asking price really seem like a good deal to me. The splitter explains his sudden success and he’s done it two years in a row now. This wasn’t a one-year blip. He did it in 2014 and did it again 2015 as he continued to emphasize the splitter.

The Yankees may not have much money to spend this offseason, but it appears Sipp can provide some real bang for the buck. Forget the left-handed thing. He’s a setup man caliber reliever capable of throwing full innings. He can provide additional bullpen depth and also help cushion the blow if the Yankees do indeed decide to trade Andrew Miller at some point. There’s always room in the bullpen for another good reliever anyway.

I can understand why anyone would be skeptical of Sipp going forward, especially since he’s not young, though I am a believer in the splitter and his ability to sustain his 2014-15 success going forward. It’s risky. No doubt about it. All reliever contracts are. Sipp does strike me as a great value play at his asking price though. Extra bullpen depth to help protect against a rotation littered with health concerns may not be a bad way for the Yankees to use their limited dollars.